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No. 33 (December 1960)
– 52 –

BOOKS

THE FERN AND THE TIKI

Reviewed by G. Kemble Welch.

The publication earlier this year of The Fern and the Tiki, by Professor David P. Ausubel, of the University of Illinois, has stimulated much comment. The closing chapters of the book are a detailed study of race relations in New Zealand, and Te Ao Hou invited Dr G. Kemble Welch, now a senior pathologist at Whangarei Hospital, to comment on these chapters. Dr Kemble Welch has worked for many years in Maori communities in Northland.

In The Fern and the Tiki Professor Ausubel claims to have found that New Zealand has a colour bar so big and baneful that he is pessimistic about our future. This conclusion cannot be tested by the ordinary scientific method of experiment, so it is by its consistency and the reliability of his data that his argument stands or falls.

Two of his claims—that Maoris are discriminated against in hotels and barred from work in banks—would meet fairly general agreement. When the controlling companies deny that it is their policy, they may be examples of the hypocritical ostrich which he seems to think should be our national bird. But this is a minute fragment of our way of life and is not evidence of a general colour bar.

Most of his other arguments are not “proof” because they have equally likely alternative explanations, as these three examples show:

Firstly, he claims that Pakehas have a stereotype of Maoris which is “an utter calumny” and evidence of colour bar—but his own picture of Maori village life fits the stereotype so closely that it is a justified generalisation. Further, he states that a Pakeha ignores the stereotype when he meets a Maori who doesn't conform—so where's the bar?

Secondly, in social relations Prof. Ausubel's dice are so heavily loaded that the Pakeha can't win. In his view exclusiveness in Maoris is the justified act of a cultural minority, but if Pakehas are exclusive it is colour bar; when a middle class Pakeha is not friendly with a working-class Pakeha it is because they have different interests, but if he is not friendly with a Maori worker it is colour bar; and when Maoris and Pakehas mix freely he states that the Pakehas don't regard these friends as Maoris, and far from conceding this as evidence against a colour bar, he implies that it takes them out of the argument.

Thirdly, he says that it is statistically indisputable that Maoris are more likely to be lazy and unreliable than Pakehas, but in spite of that if, of two unknown candidates for a job, the Pakeha is preferred, he calls it a colour bar. Surely it's just betting on the better bet.

The oddest thing in these chapters is the inconsistency, that although Prof. Ausubel found colour bar everywhere, the Maoris he met did not. He writes on page 189 “I can't recall meeting a single Maori who attributed his academic or vocational difficulties to racial prejudice.” Who is more likely to be right?

How reliable is his data? He does not refer to any other reports or statistics, so relies entirely on his own conversations with people. His claim to have made an objective study of New Zealand race relations rests on whether these people are a representative sample of the population. It is his greatest inconsistency, having made that claim, to write “it is perfectly obvious that no claim can be made that these data reflect a definitive, adequately controlled or representative cross-section of New Zealand opinion on race relations.”

So although Prof. Ausubel may give food for thought, beware of the cooking.